If you’re the kind of person who’s interested in quirky old stuff, perhaps you’ve come across the Potomack Company over the past few years: The small Alexandria auction house has been in the news selling items from the estates of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, and Art Buchwald, among others, along with White House dessert molds, Picasso paintings, and historical letters from various Founding Fathers. We’ve caught ourselves clicking through so many of the offerings on its website that it got us wondering: What’s the story with this place?
Potomack’s founder and owner, Elizabeth Wainstein, launched the company 17 years ago, and she has built it into a local staple through savvy use of the internet (auctions are held online) and a good eye for items of interest—especially when it comes to the belongings of intriguing people from the area. “We’ve been lucky to have some incredible collections, and a lot of that has to do with DC being a very well-educated, international community,” says Wainstein. “People in Washington lead fascinating lives, have traveled to fascinating places, and are interested in fascinating things.” They also tend to accumulate fascinating objects, which then often need new homes after prominent people pass away or just decide to clear out their attics.
Wainstein previously spent eight years at Sotheby’s in New York and London. She then owned Brockett’s Row Antiques in Old Town for 13 years. When she launched Potomack, those connections helped her build a team of specialists in fine art, furniture, books, and lots of other areas.
Like private investigators, her team digs up the stories behind many of the items. Sometimes that research can lead to surprises. When a couple brought in a portrait of Russia’s first tsar in 2019, one of her experts found out that it was a piece stolen from a Ukrainian museum during Nazi occupation. Similarly, after a woman came in with a flea-market painting she’d bought for $7, it turned out to be a Renoir that had been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951. (In both cases, the paintings were returned to their rightful owners.) Once, her team arrived at a home to look at potential items to sell and found a bona fide Andy Warhol in the dumpster. Its owner assumed it was a poster, not a rare artist’s proof that would later sell at auction for $94,000.
But for many of Potomack’s sales, the key isn’t who made an item but who owned it. “That’s what we call provenance,” says Wainstein. “We estimate pieces without taking provenance into consideration, because it’s not tangible. You don’t know how much people value a piece because it was owned by someone of historical significance until it goes on the market.” Provenance is why an otherwise unexceptional print that belonged to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, estimated at about $100 to $150, ended up selling for $55,000. As Wainstein sees it, “it’s owning a piece of history.”
This article appears in the January 2023 issue of Washingtonian.